The TWS market in 2021 is almost out of control. New products keep arriving for review faster than we can control; expect another 20-30 reviews by the end of Q2 2022. I was in the middle of my recent review of the Skullcandy Dime when two new models from Skullcandy arrived in the mail. The Skullcandy Grind Fuel and Push Active XT are two new models and one has proven to be a surprise.
Skullcandy are best known for their affordable range of headphones and earbuds below $100 and the new Grind Fuel lands near the top of that range with a retail price of $99.99 USD.
The $100 Skullcandy Grind Fuel are substantially more expensive than the usual competition that one can find in airports, gas stations, and mall kiosks. Can they be the TWS earbuds at the top of the affordable category or are they much ado about nothing.
The Grind Fuel ships with three sets of foam tips, a charging case, a very short USB charging cable, and the earpieces. They are constructed almost entirely of plastic in a mix of black and orange (typical Skullcandy colors).
The Grind Fuel has a large body with a very solid build, and an IP55 rating so a little water shouldn’t be a problem. These are not small IEMs but the main body sits on the ear rather than inside which makes fit a bit less daunting for those with small ears.
I found that the Skullcandy Grind Fuel stayed in the ear during periods of exercise quite well and was more comfortable than similar models that incorporated an ear-hook. The case about average size and the USB port is exposed meaning while the earpieces are water resistant, the case is best kept on dry land.
The Grind Fuel does offer wireless charging as well so the USB cable may not be needed; something you don’t see with a lot of budget wireless IEMs.
Battery life proved to be about 8.5 hours during my testing with the case offering two full recharges and a partial third before needing to be plugged in or dropped on the charging pad.
One negative is that the Grind Fuel LED charge indicators are on the inside of the case as part of the docking bay and not visible without opening the case.
Internally, the Grind Fuel uses a single dynamic driver but SkullCandy has decided to not to release a lot of details about the impedance, or sensitivity specifications. Skullcandy lists Bluetooth version 5.0 in their specs but when pairing, I found my devices connected using SBC protocol only.
I attempted to force both AAC and aptX based on the Bluetooth 5.2 spec but did not get a successful connection in either test. I was able to pair with both an iPhone 13 and a Samsung S21 but it should be noted that you’ll need to install the Skullcandy app to be able to use either model when paired to Android or iOS.
While I was less than impressed with the Bluetooth operation of the Grind Fuel, the app was another story. This is where Skullcandy has obviously spent a lot of time and effort and it incorporates a lot of features you won’t find in competitors offerings regardless of price.
Together, these are referred to as “Skull-IQ.” There are the common EQ presets and custom settings, but there is also a “set up personal sound” option. This is something several manufacturers are working on but is rare in the budget true wireless space.
The process starts with a hearing test that has the user identifying a series of different frequency tones through a white noise background; first one ear, then the other. Once the hearing test is complete, it adjusts the base sound signature to your profile.
This is the first model in Skullcandy’s lineup to support this feature. Other Skull-IQ features that the app adds to the mix are Spotify Tap, Hey Skullcandy (digital assistant), Share Audio, and the “Take a Photo” option.
From my perspective, the most interesting thing is that Skullcandy chose to develop their own digital assistant just to control the earpieces. No — “Hey Skullcandy” won’t tell you a joke or update your calendar although you can use it to turn on another digital assistant to do those things.
It is all about controlling the earphones. Yes, the same functions can be controlled by touch but if you are like me, you never remember if it is two or three clicks or if that is press and hold the left or right button. I review so many earphones that it is almost impossible for me to remember every possible sequence; being able to access functions using my voice is actually quite helpful.
The Spotify Tap function is exactly what it sounds like; the ability to turn Spotify on and off by tapping an earpiece. There is nothing groundbreaking about that but it’s a clever marketing tool for Skullcandy who sell a lot of headphones to younger listeners who probably use Spotify versus TIDAL or Qobuz.
Audio sharing lets two sets of Skull-IQ-enabled earbuds listen to the same device simultaneously. To use it, the sharer sets up the source and turns on the sharing feature. The secondary listener then pairs their earbuds to the source and has independent volume control.
I found it worked well if both pairs of earphones and the source were kept within about 15-20 feet of each other in open space. Once again — another clever marketing feature to appeal to younger listeners who might want to share what they are listening to with their friends.
The “Take a Photo” is also a neat feature but may not work with all devices so test yours before you go out the field with it. The idea is to use one of your earpieces as a Bluetooth remote for your phone or tablet camera. It’s a great way to put the phone down and take a group shot without leaving someone out or to take a selfie without the odd angle normally seen when extending your arm outward to take a photo.
The Grind Fuel has an ambient mode called “Stay-Aware Mode” to allow outside sounds in and while it worked well inside, outdoors it tends to pick up wind noise so its utility is somewhat limited. There is no support for ANC but the passive noise reduction is definitely passable.
And finally, Skullcandy partnered with Tile to add “Find my Skullcandy” to the earpieces. There is a setup routine and you do need the Tile app installed in addition to the Skullcandy app to take advantage of this feature. If you drop an earbud, you can make it chirp through the tile app to help you find it again.
The sound isn’t loud enough to hear from 20 yards away, but if you know the approximate spot you dropped the earpiece, it is enough to help find one in mulch or tall grass if working outdoors and certainly enough to find one hiding between couch cushions. You’re out of luck in the ocean.
Skullcandy has traditionally been marketed at teens and the gym crowd and I suspect the Grind Fuel will do quite well with both. The “V” sonic signature is a Skullcandy trademark and they don’t venture too far off the reservation with this pair of wireless earbuds.
Big bass is the hallmark of the Grind Fuel; there is a mid-bass emphasis centered between 60Hz and 100Hz that dominates the lower half of the spectrum. The midrange is recessed considerably and somewhat obstructed by the mid-bass performance.
These are not a reference headphone for sure, and are best with fairly simple compositions with fewer instruments like pop, rock, and hip-hop, and begin to sound congested and a bit murky with large orchestral pieces. Classical fans will not find much to love with these wireless earphones.
There are times when even the guitar and lower vocals succumb to the big bass push. Higher pitched voices have an emphasis that brings them a bit forward in the mix but they never really break free of the heavy bass presentation.
The good news is the Skullcandy hearing test option and the EQ options in the app allow for altering that signature to your liking; which for me was to cut the 60-120Hz range by about 5dB which helped clean up the midrange and make everything sound clearer. It’s not going to make you reach for audiophile recordings because these wireless earbuds are not aimed at you.
So are the Skullcandy Grind Fuel for you? I was disappointed by the lack of support for aptX and AAC, but the connectivity worked well enough without it that it is hardly a deal breaker. They do offer solid battery life performance and wireless charging.
They have a popular sonic signature with a lot of bass and offer some tuning options to alter that signature should you prefer a little less of it. And finally, they benefit from the myriad features in the new SkullCandy Skull-IQ app.
They make a compelling argument for outdoor enthusiasts and younger users who may need the extra durability these offer and the Tile feature to find a lost earpiece. I know plenty of parents who will love this particular feature.
The sonic performance isn’t my personal cup of grind fuel, but it is progress for a brand that was never really that focused on sound quality with a lot of its products. Skullcandy is making some positive changes to its products and that should be cause for concern for the competition that don’t have the level of market penetration that Skullcandy has carved out.
For more information: Skullcandy Grind Fuel
Where to buy: On sale for $70 at Amazon